Three years ago this week, I received a phone call that changed my world as I knew it forever. It was my dad calling around 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. After what seemed like hours (but was probably a minute or two) of listening to him in hysterics trying to put together a sentence to let me know what had happened, he did: “Your brother,” he said. “He’s gone.”
In walked denial, numbness and shock. The first stage of grief.
Up to until then, I had spent 32 years waking up morning after morning taking for granted that life goes on. I woke up each morning believing that we and the ones we love will live forever. And on April 22, 2012, that changed with a phone call from my father telling me that my brother, who was 29 years old, had died from an accidental overdose from a fentanyl patch.
I had not been drinking this particular Sunday, which was unheard of for me. I can’t remember a Sunday prior to this that you wouldn’t have found me at a local terrace café that offered bottomless mimosas for $10. I was usually in a blackout by 3pm, but this day I didn’t go and I hadn’t been drinking.
I remember sitting on my couch and feeling so helpless. I was convinced that there had to be a mistake. I went outside and fell to the ground. As odd as it may sound, I just needed to be connected to something. I wanted to cry but the tears weren’t there, so I screamed. I couldn’t process the news. Just because somebody calls and tell you that your brother has died doesn’t make it real. I had just talked to him a couple days prior. We were planning on taking our nephew to a NBA game and decided to wait to do it another weekend. And as much as I didn’t want to believe what my dad had told me, I knew that it was true. I just didn’t know how to process that. I couldn’t wrap my head around what life without my brother looked like.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to need to pack or how long I would be at my parents’ house, but what I knew for certain was that I needed every ounce of alcohol that I had in my house to get me through. I found a cardboard box and packed everything I had, including a six-pack of Modelos, a few Blue Moons, half a dozen bottles of wine and all the half empty bottles of liquor that had been left over from parties. I remember looking at all of it, thinking I needed more and wondering how I was going to get it. I think my supply lasted me a couple of days and then I relied on friends to bring more throughout the week.
I started drinking around 8 pm that night and didn’t stop for 49 days. That’s when I finally landed in rehab. I had cried a lot over the course of those 49 days but it was all through a drunken fog and I would typically just drink more to pass out when the pain was unbearable. I knew I was an alcoholic and had known that for years, but my brother’s death gave me every excuse I had ever wanted to drink like I wanted to and that’s exactly what I did.
It wasn’t until rehab, when I could no longer turn to alcohol as my solution, that I really started to grieve my brother’s death. I had so many emotions going on in my head and I didn’t have anything to put into my body to escape or numb those feelings. I don’t think I have ever felt more uncomfortable in my entire life.
My first year in sobriety was a year of a lot of firsts. Everything I experienced sober for the first time, I was also experiencing it without my brother for the first time and trying to navigate my way through the grief process. Birthdays, holidays, family vacations and even simple family dinners were difficult. I had been drunk at all of these things for years and they were all reminders that my brother wasn’t there.
Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I made it through that first year without picking up a drink. What I remember from that first year was being uncomfortable…a lot. I sat with all that uncomfortableness and felt things and allowed myself to feel for the first time. I cried a lot. I slept a lot. I ate a lot of Krispy Kreme donuts. I got to know myself. I got to know others. I learned to accept help from people who care about me. I stopped beating myself up for having feelings. I learned that life isn’t always good, but it also isn’t always bad. There are good days and there are bad days but I don’t have to drink for either of them. Feelings won’t kill me but drugs and alcohol will.
Navigating sobriety and grief can be tricky. My alcoholism can mask itself as grief and that’s something I have to be aware of. I can’t predict when grief is going to show back up in my life or when new grief is going to come my way. There is always a bitter sweetness moving forward after such a loss, but in my experience being sober and navigating grief is a whole hell of a lot better than drinking it away.
I don’t take for granted that the people I love are going to be here forever. My brother’s absence is a constant reminder of that. My life has changed and it will never be the same but sobriety gives me the opportunity to live my life in such a manner that my regrets are fewer and my love is bigger. I sat in denial and anger for 49 days with nothing but alcohol to keep me company. Finding acceptance has been key in dealing with sobriety and with grief. I don’t always have to like aspects of either but I have to find acceptance in both to move forward and that is exactly what I have done.
Over the past three years, Grief and I have developed a friendship of sorts. She is always there…sometimes all up in my business and other times sitting quietly in the background. She has become a part of my life. And when you spend as much time with her as I have, you start to understand and appreciate her. She reminds me of how much I love and miss my brother. She reminds me of what is really important in life. Sometimes I hate her and sometimes I love her. She has taught me so much about who I am and just how strong I am. She has shown me how to survive and live without someone that I love so dearly. She can be ugly and messy and graceful and beautiful all at the same time. She is unpredictable and will show up when you least expect it. She zigs when you think she is going to zag. She’s patient and feisty and persistent. Sometimes she overstays her welcome and other times I miss her dearly. There is a peace when she leaves but I know she will be back. And when she shows back up, I will greet her with open arms because she always leaves me a little stronger yet a little softer from my time spent with her.